When Tom Francis was a teenager, living with his parents, he roughed out a plan for a game featuring a bounty hunter in space. Now, years later, he's a respected games journalist and the creator of Gunpoint, a stealth game that has found success (and significantly large sales) on the indie scene.
"The journalist to developer thing is what most people notice, but it's also just fan to developer. A person who was obsessed with games is now making games," he tells GamesIndustry International on a rare Friday afternoon off.
Francis spent nine years writing about games for PC Gamer, but his own game, created after work and launched on June 3, has now been so successful that he's been able to quit his day job and focus on making games for the rest of his days. But how has the transition been from critic to creator? Have Tom's press connections been the secret to Gunpoint's success? Not really, he explains.
"Dealing with the press was an eye opener... when they don't write about the game it's hard not to take it personally "
"Dealing with the press was an eye opener. Because they're fantastic when they do write about the game, but when they don't write about the game it's hard not to take it personally. When I had preview code ready I emailed 23 different outlets, websites and magazines, and only three of them covered it and the other 20 didn't even respond for the first four days."
After chasing up those 20 outlets about the preview code only a further one wrote about it, teaching Francis his first lesson about PRing your own game - don't bother with the the preview code.
"As a journalist when you don't reply to stuff like that you think 'yeah, I'll get to it,'" he admits.
"It made me realise when you're the developer you feel like a lack of response is them saying 'f*** you, we don't care about your game, go away you tiny man.'"
Other lessons included putting embargos on review code to get maximum exposure on release day, something he hadn't even thought of until a kindly reviews editor from a UK gaming site suggested it to him.
And then there were other problems too, like having to convince people at industry parties that he was there as a developer, not a journalist, and facing the old game reviewer's lament 'no one reads reviews any more, they just look at the score' from the other side of the barricades.
"Launch day I was the busiest I've ever been in my life so I didn't actually have time to read reviews," he says. "Sounds terrible but you just look at the score."
In fact the good review scores that Gunpoint scored have left Francis in a bit of emotional turmoil, torn between gratitude and modesty.
"It's great because they liked it but also you feel really self-indulgent just reading about your own thing again and again. You read it once and that's really good because you've been worrying and worrying about whether people would like it and then read it, 'they do like it' and then another one 'they do like it' and then after the fifth one you just think 'what's wrong with me? I just keep reading about my own game.' But then if I don't read it I feel really ungrateful."
Interestingly Francis applied a lot of what he had learned writing reviews to creating Gunpoint. Like what ultimately mattered to the players, and which elements of a game could be rushed through to get to the more important things.
"What I've basically been doing for nine years as a journalist was, the thing I was trying to get better at all the time, was figuring out what's important to why a game is good," he says.
"When you do that for nine years and then you start making a game it makes it really easy to decide which things to spend your time on. In particular lots of little details that some people treat as being way more important than they are you can skip them if you realise they're going to be difficult. Like menus, is the main example."
He points out that bad menus won't kill a good game, but more importantly good menus won't save a bad one, although later admits he has had one tweet about his "lame" menus.
"There's a really unproductive aphorism going around that it's the little things that make a big difference. It isn't, it's the big things that make a big difference. And then if you get the big things right and you do the little things right, lots of people notice the little things. But if you get the big things wrong, it doesn't matter if you got the little things right."
"It's the big things that make a big difference"
Francis had some help getting those little things right from artists and musicians who offered to help out back when the game was just a prototype, one that was never meant to go on sale. John Roberts contributed the character art, Fabian van Dommelen did backgrounds, John Robert Matz contributed the title music, Ryan Ike the mission music and Francisco Cerda the menu music. All were recruited over the internet to work on a free game, and all are now getting a percentage of the sales.
"I think that's why it's gone really smoothly, I haven't had any trouble with any of the contributors, it's never been people losing interest or leaving or anything because they all joined when they thought it was going to be no money. So they're excited about it enough to do it for free."
He jokes that he should do the same thing for his next project, say it's going to be a free game to ensure the same commitment. And while he's busy fixing any bugs that still live in the Gunpoint code and dealing with launch type administration, he's already planning his next project. Or even his next five.
One is a procedurally generated strategy game, an idea that's been developing for months and that he almost ceased work on Gunpoint for, another is a stealth game that he came up with a week before he finished Gunpoint.He plans to prototype both to figure out which works best.
As for the success, Francis has a new phone and a new laptop, and lots of accounting and business type stuff to worry about.
"I don't really want to start a studio, hire employees or start an empire. That seems to be the default thing to do, if you have enough money obviously you want to start your own empire and get as big as you possibly can and move into making bigger games and making first person shooters and stuff."
In fact, the suggestion that indie game development is something you leave behind once you've found success clearly irritates him.
"That's not what it's about at all. It's not like a second best stepping stone to get in with the big boys, it's better than that."